By Crash redaction

Crash is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of French mixed media and poster artist Jacques Villeglé. Rediscover Crash’s interview with the artist below.


It’s interesting that you began your work in the immediate postwar period. And in Britain, you met Raymond Hains at the École des Beaux-Arts in Rennes. Britain, architecture, the end of the war: it was a new era.

It’s simple. Raymond was always showing up late, he was the opposite of the busy man. I started at the École des Beaux-Arts in Rennes in October 1944, he didn’t show up until January 1945. Late. Everyone noticed this guy who took three months to decide if he was going to do sculpture or paint. He picked sculpture because there were a lot of sculptors in the Côtes-d’Armor area, and also because his father went to the École des Beaux-Arts and then became a house painter. I later realized he was someone with an interest in all
sorts of strange things. He wasn’t particularly interested in art, he just came to school to get out of Saint-Brieuc. He was a photographer. The only time he truly worked was when he was taking photographs. He gave an exhibition of his photography when he was 21, in 1947 and 1948. A genuinely curious mind. I got close to him because he was interested in things I wasn’t already interested in. Strange thing is, he didn’t even know how to draw! He won the Prix National for painting, but I don’t think anyone will ever see a drawing or painting of his! He did photographs, serigraphy, reproductions, tapestries adapted from photographs, but he never painted a single work, just some graffiti. When I left the art school in Rennes to go to a different one in Nantes, he came to visit me – he had never been to Nantes. Facing the Loire river, on a wintry day with plenty of daylight, we could hear the mechanical saws on the docks, the boats passing by, the sirens, the transporter bridge – quite a fantastic monument that only stood for perhaps 50 or 60 years – and we said it was a spectacle worthy of being filmed. But we wouldn’t have had the same light on film. In business at the time, there was a lot of talk about eliminating the intermediaries between producers and buyers. So we had to do the same thing in art. I thought it was an incredible idea to eliminate every intermediary between the model and the painting. In August 1947, eight months later, I was in Saint-Malo and the city had been leveled, there were iron rods everywhere. I picked one up and thought, “This is not a sculpture, it’s a drawing in space”. I showed it to Hains, and he agreed with me entirely. Then he photographed a few torn posters in the street, and in February 1949 we made a poster together. Hains and I did posters together. But at the end of his life Hains did sidewalk sculptures – discarded objects, pipes sticking out of the ground. And the stuff he did at the end of his life, he could have done it when he knew me because there’s a lot of mockery in it, even in the name “sidewalk sculptures”. He had a very fantasy-oriented side to him. One of the last times he appeared on film he had a camera and he said, “I can’t see very well, but I’ve got this device that calculates everything for me!” Mockery didn’t bring him down. Unlike me who am always very anxious, he’s someone who would say, “I’ll live the way I want and do what I want!” And that’s what he did. He was a destroyer, a Byzantine. You know, when you read “La France Byzantine” by Julien Benda, there are things that sound like Raymond Hains.


It wasn’t enough just to tear and paste. We had to focus on other things. Politics was very important at the time, so we got into it. That’s when I realized that what my approach was aiming at was an illustration of the city. So I started naming my posters after the time and place where I found them. Sociology was just beginning to penetrate the art world. That meant that one morning I might select something very balanced and composed, and then later that day something more expressionist. But in doing so I risked losing my identity. Who was I? The author of the first poster, or the author of the second one? That’s why I decided that it wasn’t me making the artworks, but someone anonymous, a mythical character like the Wandering Jew. In this way, I was able to focus attention on the poster as an artwork for a museum, a work to be collected, I can be the one praising the work. André Breton once said: “The artist must live in the shadow of his work.” Creating anonymous series lets me live in the shadow of my works.

Then you did a big project with Raymond Hains, called “Pénélope”…

We collaborated on that film. Raymond’s father had a painting and window business. One day his father told him there was a place in the attic with stained glass he would like. They were wrapped in newspaper. When he picked them up, he saw the lettering shatter. The first project I did with him was called “Hepérile Éclaté”, which we also did with Camille Bryen. We thought up all kinds of things, but the film available back then in 1952 wasn’t sensitive enough. Hains was a very good technician, so we redesigned everything, and that’s where I came in handy. We were doing film. That’s when I quit architecture school, because for me film was real teamwork, and you need a team to make film because everyone has their own qualities that complement each other. For Raymond, finishing a work was like death. We spent over a year on “Hépérile”. We started in May 1952 and finished in June 1953. We could have mass produced a whole series, but that wasn’t the point. When Mallarmé did it, he used theater posters to compose his poem. It’s the first modern example of an artist taking inspiration from posters, and it’s magnificent. Later we worked with Georges Philippe Vallois and Marianne to put together a catalog for the film. I wanted to finish the catalog so people could understand the film and finish it one day. But the only thing I couldn’t take care of was the sound. I’ve always been tone deaf. I listen to music, and I know what I like, but I have no memory for sound. We didn’t know if we could leave it to outside musicians, since they may have come up with something we didn’t like. But we knew the rhythm we wanted. We knew what to do with the other aspects of the film.

At Galerie Georges Philippe Vallois, you create a dialog between your torn posters and graffiti by Brassaï. Is this a visionary combination? What is your relation to photography?

Jacques Prévert must have done a lot to encourage Brassaï in this direction. At first I even thought Prévert may have given him the idea. Photographers from that era, like Man Ray, came to see my exhibitions. Man Ray came and sat in a corner. I had a book about him from 1923, so I knew he had been an artist before becoming a photographer. But at that time, in 1960, everyone looked down on him… He did photographs and collectors would say, “Now he thinks he’s an artist, he’s selling his photos for the price of art!” No one even recognized him. People respected him as a friend of Marcel Duchamp. But that was his only asset. It’s crazy! If you remember “Ballet Mécanique” by Fernand Léger, he only got to do it because Man Ray refused the project, saying there wasn’t enough pay. He could state his case well enough, but there was a black hole around him. When I said he was an artist, that he had published work in France in 1923, no one believed it. Man Ray’s work was quite visionary, too. He was one of the first to integrate sculpture into photography and to create a very avant-garde kind of chemistry. But it was only well after his exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris that people discovered him.


Before that, there was Marcel Duchamp’s “Anemic Cinema”, which was very optical. The Russians did some astounding things as well. Our culture grew out of film clubs. After the Occupation, young people immersed themselves in everything we were discovering at the time. There were film clubs everywhere, it was fantastic. Take the film club at the Musée de l’Homme, for example, where people like Jean Cocteau presented their films. We were familiar with film and filmmakers from the west coast of America. It was one of the most well informed social circles. Young filmmakers also enjoyed certain protections, so it was very open, too.


We were fortunate to meet Colette Allendy before 1959. She was a bit of a timid woman, but she knew the painting world very well. She was the wife of one of the top ten psychoanalysts in Paris. At that time psychoanalysts were discovering their calling, their profession. Doctor Allendy was Breton, and mixed his profession with a bit of numerology and a lot of other things. As for Colette, she had a decent education. Her mother was a painter and I had seen a few of her works. She was unknown, but she painted well. Her grandfather was the art inspector for a government ministry, so she had a strong knowledge of art. We gave an exhibition at her place. That’s where we met Pierre Restany and that social circle. At the time I didn’t know many artists my age because they were all doing abstract painting. As we’re fairly uncompromising when we’re young, I only associated with artists born between 1900 and 1910. With her education, she introduced us to Klein through her gallery. We all lived in Montparnasse back then, all a few blocks from each other. Today’s Paris is nothing like the Paris of our time.


For me, he was predestined to be what he was. At 12, when his father was moving, someone came by and found a packet of work from Klein’s youth at the bottom of a closet. There were letters he had received from his father’s friends, with things written like, “My little Yves, you will be the greatest painter of your era”. At the end of the packet, there was a drawing of a landscape that at first glance didn’t seem interesting. But then I noticed it had been painted in blue cameo. Klein was an only child. He was predestined, he never doubted himself. For him, blue represented the immaterial. When Nouveau Réalisme began, he wanted to start a Blue Revolution. But you can’t have a revolution all by yourself, you need a group. That’s what we tried to put together. At the first Biennale de Paris, we had the good fortune to be rejected by the artists. Raymond Cogniat, who curated that year’s Biennale, didn’t want any fights. So he found us a room – the auditorium – where we could exhibit our work. I call it fortunate because right away there were articles published about us and against us. And that’s the time that I really started to associate with artists of my age. I was 33. The first was Klein, and he was already friends with Tinguely. His parents were both painters, so he knew that world quite well. Everyone was a painter in his family, but there weren’t any paintings on the walls! I think it probably came from Klein’s Void. Plus his father was Dutch and Dutch interiors are always quite sparse! Klein was predestined. The unconscious had a profound impact on his work. I remember once he called his doctor, explaining that he had trouble performing certain judo moves.


He was the first to provoke conflict within the movement.When he showed up he was infatuated with himself. He was 24, and I didn’t know him at all. It was Arman who brought him in. In the Nouveau Réalisme group there were people from Nice, the Bretons and the Swiss (laughs): three very different groups. I met Martial Raysse on Monday, October 27, 1960. He started the first fight. This 24-year-old guy, who showed up in a place where we were all 10 years older than him, he compared himself to an atomic bomb with the rhetoric of General De Gaulle. He irritated us a bit I have to say, and that’s when we got into an argument. I knew that conversations like that would be negative. If he had been nice, everything would have gone well. We agreed to collaborate because we wanted to start the Blue Revolution and we had confidence in our friends. Whenever you hear about artist groups, right away you think of the Impressionists who lived in cottages in the country. Life was a lot quieter then. When I see a Monet painting next to one by another painter, I can see that they were painting the same landscape at the same time. That kind of thing wasn’t possible for us.


He introduced me to all the artists in the Saint-Malo area. He always had a lot of people around him and he had a very curious mind. Hains was afraid of him because they were so similar. He actually scolded me for associating with him. I ate at his place when he had opened his café. “Changement total de direction” was an exhibition at his bar, before it closed, where Daniel Buren did his vertical stripes in snow spray on the window. It was a catastrophe: he had a lot of business because he was charming, but he didn’t know anything about accounting or taxes or anything. He didn’t record anything! So it was a financial catastrophe. Whenever I met people who told me they had worked with Gilles Mahé, I would always ask them how it ended up, and I would always get the same answer: “We didn’t end up doing anything!” We were supposed to work on a project
in Saint-Briac. So we started out by going to the market in Dinard, then we ate, and at the end of dinner I said: “Perhaps we could talk about the project!” Of course it fell apart because Gilles’s project wasn’t feasible.


We had a great relationship for 8 months. I noticed right away that he was someone out of the ordinary. He never ordered anyone around, but everyone followed him. He
had a mystical concept of rupture that made sense to me: he always stripped everything down to the essential. Whenever we do anything, we always end up betraying our original intentions as we put them into action. But he remained in the world of the mind. I knew he was going to become someone important. We saw each other a lot as friends, but I was never part of his group – I was 27, so I was too old, like Saint-Just, you know. He was only 21, he was born at the end of 1931. He lived at the Hôtel de la Faculté on Rue Racine. At that time he was still a bourgeois boy. In that time, the big thing was André Breton and the Surrealists.